Domenico Maroli' (Messina, ca. 1612 - 1676)

Euclid of Megara Dressing as a Woman to Hear Socrates Teach in Athens Sold

Oil on canvas, 54 15/16 x 88 in. (139,5 x 223,5 cm.)



PROVENANCE: Collection of Giovanni Nani (1623-1679), Venice, 17th century; private collection, France, late 19th and 20th century.

INVENTORIES : Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana di Venezia, It. VII, 2432 (=10490), Inventari di Casa Nani, fol. 30r-35r, in particular. fol.. 33r; M. F. Merling, Marco Boschini’s “La carta del navegar pitoresco”: Art Theory and Virtuoso Culture in Seventeenth-Century Venice, Ph. D. dissertation, Brown University, 1992, Ann Arbor 1997, p. 402; P. Benassai, Sebastiano Mazzoni, Florence 1999, p. 203.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: unpublished

Until the author and subject were identified, this painting posed a fascinating iconographic and attributive dilemma. It was the detailing of the straight and zigzag drapery that suggested a comparison with the works of a painter from Messina, Domenico Maroli, from we have not even a dozen paintings. To verify this hypothesis it is sufficient to compare the broken folds of the cloths or the faces depicted with naturalistic precision to those in the painting of Lot and His Daughters in the Museo Regionale in Messina and in the Sacrifice of Melchizedek in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the Cathedral of Reggio Calabria, that is signed and dated 1665. There are further similarities between the background landscape with a small, pale figure and the view of Sodom in the Messina painting, to say nothing of the boy’s face that is similar to the young Eutychius in the Martyrdom of Saint Placidus that was in the convent of the nuns of San Paolo in Messina (this painting is only known through photographs because it was destroyed in the 1908 earthquake). Even if the paint was applied directly over the preparatory layer, corresponding to what Lanzi says concerning Marolì’s technique1, the hypothesis about this painting’s attribution was definitely confirmed by the inventory of the collection of Giovanni Nani (1623-1679) 2. Nani was a Venetian nobleman and listed our painting under the artist’s name and at the same time he resolved the iconographic dilemma. Under item 60 of the inventory we read “The philosopher Eucleides in a library with many books, dressing as a woman [in order] to go to Athens at nigh to hear Socrates teach …[with] almost full-figures, by Marolì 8 ½ high, 14 wide d. 28” 3. Not only do the measurements, expressed in Venetian quarte (approx. 16-17 cm.) coincide, but it explains, the unusual and almost impenetrable subject once and for all: it is based on Noctes Acticae by Aulo Gellio4. The figure on the left, putting on a woman’s dress with the help of the boy who is tying the shoulder straps, and getting ready to slip on the women’s shoes that are on the stool, having already removed the heavier men’s shoes that are on the right, is the philosopher Eucleides of Megara (circa 450 B.C. – circa 380 B.C.). He is disguising himself as a woman to go to Athens and hear Socrates teach; the female figure in the background may be another portrayal of him on the way to Athens. The disguise was necessary because Athens had forbidden the Megarians, allies of Sparta, to enter the city and the ports of the Delio-Attic League: a prohibition that was one of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. We also must note that the study where Eucleides is dressing contains not only books, but also a compass, a set-square, an hourglass, and on the right, a cylindrical clock. Among the scientific instruments that are unrelated to philosophy we can also see a terrestrial globe, an armillary sphere, a compass, a protractor, a telescope on the windowsill and a big clock. These items can be explained by the fact that in the 17th century, the philosopher from Megara was frequently confused with the great Alexandrian mathematician, Euclid, who lived during the II century B.C. and, as we know, studied geometry and optics. To illustrate the subject’s interests, the artist portrayed him in a study crammed with the books and objects more suited to the rooms of a 17th century scholar than of an ancient philosopher. He depicted some of the instruments, which may have belonged to the patron who was an enthusiastic supporter of scientific studies, with a great wealth of detail, and he also added some clearly anachronistic touches such as Plutarch’s Lives written four centuries after Eucleides of Megera had died.
When Domenico Marolì reached Venice he was already a trained artist. If we believe the information provided by Susinno5, he was born in Messina around 1612 and, after a restless youth, when he was twenty-two he entered the workshop of Barbalonga, a classicist pupil and helper of Domenichino, where he stayed for eight years prior to going to Venice. On the basis of the information supplied by the biographer, his sojourn on the lagoon must have begun around 1642, was interrupted by a stay in Bologna and he returned home in 1660. Luigi Hyerace6, however, maintains that his Venetian sojourn was shorter and that in all likelihood he was still in Messina in 1650 if we are to believe a nineteenth century source that dates the Martyrdom of Saint Placidus which had been in the church of the nuns of San Paolo that same year7, and again in 1657 when the Senate of Messina commissioned a Madonna of the Letter that was donated to the city of Catania8. Therefore, the Eucleides must have been painted between these dates, perhaps closer to the latter since such an important commission would not have been given to a painter recently arrived on the Venetian artistic scene.
In any case, once in Venice, Marolì decided to expand his repertory to satisfy the demands of an art market that was increasingly interested in new forms of expression in genre painting and he began doing animals, landscapes and marine scenes as described by Marco Boschini9. That the painter had cordial relations with Boschini is proved by the brief profile dedicated to him and the inclusion of one of his pastoral paintings in the ideal gallery described in the Vento Otavo della Carta del Navegar pittoresco (1660) 10. The protagonist of the book, – “His Excellency”, the nobleman who discusses painting with the Compare - is Giovanni Nani11, the patron who commissioned our painting. He was not only an enthusiastic collector, but also an amateur painter of some skill12. His familiarity with the artists in Boschini’s circle is confirmed by the fact that Vecchia and Liberi stood as godfathers at the christening of his daughters13. But above all, his love of art was revealed and confirmed by the impressive collection in the San Trovaso palace, that comprised many genre paintings, landscapes, seascapes, battle scenes and still-lifes (especially flowers) by Giovanni Stanchi, Hieronymus Galle, Nicasius Bernaerts and from the school of Mario Nuzzi. In addition to the Eucleides the Sicilian artist painted a “storm at sea”, a “journey of Abraham with many animals and household goods loaded on horses and donkeys, with small figures in a beautiful countryside”, a “fishing scene, with small figures” and a “battle scene with Signor Ferigo Nani [Giovanni’s father) commander of the fleet, on his ship alone against three ships of the Duke of Ossuna”. This shows that Giovanni Nani admired all types of contemporary art, including the “lesser” genres (hunting scenes, battle scenes, landscapes, seascapes, etc.), which Boschini apparently disdained. It is probable that it was Nani who showed Marolì’s work to Boschini, reinforcing the praises he wrote in the Carta. Furthermore, Nani’s artistic competence and knowledge is proved by the fact that not only did he compile the inventory of the collection himself14, but in some cases noted the hands of several artists in one same painting15 and was able to distinguish the various phases of the artists’ works, as in the case of a Holy Family by Guercino which he described as “in his good style”.
For Marco Boschi, his noble friend was the archetype of the art connoisseur who was interested in other disciplines to the point that he established an artistic academy, known as Filaleti, open to the most diverse interests in his home at San Trovaso16. As Boschini observed in the Breve Istruzione, the foreword to Le Ricche Minere della Pittura Veneziana (1674), a true guide for as yet inexpert art lovers, they owed him gratitude for having offered all painters, professionals and amateurs alike, the opportunity of practicing at the school for nudes established on the ground floor of his palazzo. On holidays the upstairs rooms were dedicated to those who wanted to discuss painting, perspective, optics, architecture and geometry, Nani’s favorite topics, along with mathematics, music and botany17. It is also significant to note that he had his portrait painted by Pietro della Vecchia: he was depicted as Apollo, the god of intellectual and artistic pursuits. He commissioned other artists in his circle to do paintings of subjects related to knowledge, wisdom and academics such as a Geroglifico dela cognitione [Hieroglyph of Knowledge] by Ricchi and a Theory and Practice by Liberi, certainly to celebrate the activities conducted on the two stories of his home. It is from this standpoint that we must interpret the Eucleides by Marolì. The subject was certainly requested by the patron to celebrate the freedom of knowledge, in polemics with the obstacles that made it difficult to achieve, as well in all likelihood, also to decorate one of the upstairs rooms in the palazzo used for the academy members’ scientific discussions. Merling18 has put forward the fascinating hypothesis that this painting was one of eight done by artists such as Liberi, Mazzoni, Carpioni and Negri, almost as if to replicate the ideal gallery described in Vento Otavo della Carta. Of these, the most similar to our painting, in terms of subject and the inventory description – which does not mention the artist’s name - is “The Philosopher Thales of Miletus, with a merchant, depicting the art of negotiation, natural size full figures, 8 ½, high 24 wide d. 40”, and which, even though it is nearly double the width, would seem to be the companion piece to Marolì’s Eucleides which was meant to “portray the study of letters” 19. If the highly unusual choice of subject must certainly be ascribed to Nani, it behooves us to note that Marolì, too, was an educated man since – as Susinno mentions20 - before devoting himself to painting he had completed literary studies, and this background was certainly appreciated by his educated patron.
Even though it was painted in Venice, the Eucleides does not reveal any significant adherence to the local figurative culture. On the contrary, the descriptive precision recalls the Emilian classical roots of Barbalonga, Marolì’s teacher, and the tempered naturalism of the Neapolitans such as Giovan Bernardo Azzolino, while the luministic play of lights and shadows on the folds of the drapery point in the direction of Paolo Finoglio. The most interesting part, however, is the great still-life of books and scientific instruments that takes up well two thirds of the composition. It is an unicum not only in Marolì’s production, but in Italian genre painting in general up to at least the two Scaffali con libri di musica [Shelves with Music] by Giuseppe Maria Crespi. Even if we do find the same saturation of space as in the Artist’s Studio by the Maestro dell’ Annuncio ai Pastori now in a private collection in Madrid21, I believe that the models for this digression should be sought among the northern specialists who often painted glimpses studies, untidy tables and, above all, vanitas with books, such as the one by Jacques de Gheyn II at the Yale University Art Gallery or the other by Jan Lievens conserved at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Indeed, even the study in Maroli’s painting is a sort of huge vanitas in which the hourglass, the overturned ink bottle, the wrinkled books, the lamp that is not burning and the clocks want to emphasize the inexorable passage of time and, perhaps, the vanity of science itself. It is quite likely that Pietro Bellotti was not insensitive to the Sicilian painter’s minute analysis of figures and objects22: in all likelihood he had the opportunity to visit Giovanni Nani’s palace and see the collection, if as Boschini writes, he planned on painting his portrait23.

Alberto Crispo


1. L. Lanzi, Storia pittorica della Italia dal Risorgimento delle Belle Arti fin presso al fine del XVIII secolo , Bassano 1795 -96 (ed. by M. Capucci, Florence 1968-74, I, pp. 468-469, note 2).
2. Giovanni, the son of Ferigo and Orsetta Pesaro, was born on 1 May 1623, in 1644 he married Bianca Nani di Agostin Procurator; he became a member of the Consiglio dei Dieci [Council of Ten] in 1668 and died on 5 April 1679. See S. Savini Branca, Il collezionismo veneziano nel ‘600, Padua 1965, p. 250. The inventory of the collection was published by M.F. Merling, Marco Boschini’s “La carta del navegar pitoresco”: Art Theory and Virtuoso Culture in Seventeenth-Century Venice, (Ph. D., Brown University), Ann Arbor, 199 2, pp. 398-405, and P. Benassai, Sebastiano Mazzoni, Florence 1999, pp. 201-104 . The collection was scattered, most probably after the death of his grandson Giovanni, (11 February 1755) the last member of the Nani family of San Trovaso (ibid. , pp. 148 -149).
3. M.F. Merling (op. cit. note 2, p. 402); P. Benassai (op. cit. note 2, p. 203).
4. Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, VII, X.
5. The date of birth is given by F. Susinno, Le vite de’ pittori messinesi, 1724 (Basel, Kunstmuseum, Kupferstichkabinett, ms. A 45) ed. by V. Martinelli, Florence 1960, pp. 204 -210, who also accurately gives the date of his death, 23 May 1676 (he was 65), which he may have obtained from the inscription on his tomb in the church of San Nicola dei Greci in Messina. That the artist was buried in this church can be explained by the fact that his father was of Greek origin.
6. L. Hyerace, “Precisazioni su Domenico Marolì e due inediti”, Prospettiva, 1984 , 38 , pp. 58 -69, in particular pp. 62-64.
7. C. La Farina, “Intorno alla biografia di Onofrio Gabrieli pittore da Messina”, Il Faro, 1836, pp. 42-43.
8. In this regard, see also G. Molonia, Marolì Domenico (ad vocem), in La pittura in Italia. Il Seicento, Milan 1989 , II, p. 803.
9. M. Boschini, La carta del navegar pitoresco, Venezia 1660 (ed. by A. Pallucchini, Venice-Rome 1966, p. 691): “Del regno de Cecilia un Marolì, / Domenego de nome, Messinese, /Se ’l depenze una Nave, o ’l fa un Paese, / Stago per dir, no se puol far de pì. / I so peneli certo è universali: / El fa figure, e fa Vasseli in Mar / Che i temporali i fa precipitar, / E in tereni vivissimi Animali. / In verità, se ’l ve introduse un Can, / Un polire, un bel Toro, o un bel Agnelo, / Che podè dirghe: questo è un Pastorelo / Che seguita i Giumenti del Bassan. / O quante zentilezze curiose / Co ’l so valor lu forma al natural! / Certo ben el depenze, e molto el val! / Certo el fa molte cose capriciose! / L’è Pitor, l’è soldà, l’è generoso: / A la spada e al penel molto s’inchina: / L’è (co’ se dise) de la capelina, / E bravo in ogni conto, e virtuoso”; also G. Martinioni, Aggiunte… to F. Sansovino, Venetia città nobilissima et singolare…, Venice 1663 (ed by L. Moretti, Venice 1998 , p. 21) wrote “Domenico Marolì Missinese, paints figures, landscapes and animals very well”.
10. M. Boschini (op. cit. note 9, pp. 629-630): “Che ’l Marolì, che ha genii pastorali, / E in tute le altre cose inzegno acuto, / No podendo int’un quadro far de tuto, / Che ’l fazza donca un puoco d’Animali. / E un Pastorel, che tegna in fren un Can, / Defensor d’altre bestie de più sorte, /Che ’l sia ingrintà, che ’l rogna e bagia forte, /E no me importa se i sia al monte, o al pian, / Che ’l fazza in suma tuto quel che ’l vuol. / El giudicio de l’Omo racional / Domina ogni Bestiazza, ogni Animal; / Scriver, per moto, soto se ghe puol.”.
11. As M.F. Merling has also emphasized, on the basis of a consolidated tradition (op. cit. note 2, pp. 144 -177). The same opinion is expressed by L. Borean, La quadreria di Agostino e Giovan Donato Correggio nel collezionismo veneziano del Seicento, Udine 2000, p. 80.
12. M. Boschini (op. cit. note 9, p. 533) wrote “coi peneli ha tanta intrinsichezza, / E opera con ogni acuratezza / Quant’altro intendentissimo Pitor”; the same author included him among the “Deletanti de pitura” [Amateur painters]. Mentioning a Return of the Prodigal Son painted for him by Guercino, C.C. Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice…, Bologna 1678 (ed. 184 1, II, p. 269) also defines him as a “great amateur”.
13. P. Benassai (op. cit. note 2, p. 200).
14. M.F. Merling (op. cit. note 2, p. 155); this is evident from the entries concerning the portrait of Nani, listed as “my portrait.”
15. This is the case of a Flora and Zephyr by Pietro Negri where the flowers were painted by another hand and an Adam and Eve by Panzon [Ponzone?] with animals and fruits by Giancengo [?]; cf. M.F. Merling (op. cit. note 2, pp. 156, 398, 401), P. Benassai (op. cit. note 2, pp. 201, 203).
16. We must also recall that Vecchia and Libri, the godfathers of Giovanni’s daughters, established painting academies in their homes.
17. M. Boschini (op. cit. note 9, pp. 743 -744 ): “grand’obligazione doverebbe proffessare senza dubbio il Dilettante di Pittura ad uno non mai a bastanza da celebrarsi, Senatore amplissimo di questa Patria, indagatore diligente delle cose più recondite della Natura e dell’Arte, cultore indefesso della Virtù e liberal Mecenate di qualunque la proffessa, non ignaro del dissegno e dell’arte medesima del colorire, il quale, avendo eretta in sua Casa in S. Trovaso una Accademia universale, co ’l nome de’ filaleti, cioè a dire Amatori della Verità, concede a vecchi e a giovani Pittori, e a qual si sia dilettante, curioso di questa professione, libero l’addito, per introdursi a dissegnare dal Nudo, in Stanze terrene a ciò destinate, con pensiero d’arricchirle di tutti i Rillevi che migliori di gesso potrà raccogliere, per servizio e comodo dei studenti; e in oltre dà libertà a cadaun altro professore di qual si voglia facoltà liberale, nei giorni festivi di tutto l’anno, di congregarsi nelle sue stanze superiori, ove s’abbia liberamente a discorrere di Pittura, di Prospettiva, d’Ottica, d’Architettura, di Geometria, e in somma di tutte quelle scienze che più sono d’aggradimento a’ congregati; ed è cultore particolarmente di tutte le matematiche, amatore di musica, ed ha un’esatissima cognizione dei fiori più pellegrini e più rari, e de’ semplici ancora, de’ quali pure ne va facendo per suo studio copiosa raccolta”. On the Accademia dei Filaleti, in addition to Merling, see P. Sohm, La critica d’arte del Seicento: Carlo Ridolfi e Marco Boschini, in La pittura nel Veneto. Il Seicento, ed. by M. Lucco, Milan 2000, II, pp. 725-756, in particular p. 739.
18. M.F. Merling (op. cit. note 2, pp. 160-161).
19. In addition to the Euclid, the “Battle of Signor Ferigo Nani” and the “Journey of Abraham”, all by Marolì, the series probably included a “Bacchus transforming the bacchantes into trees over the death of Orpheus, small figures against a landscape by Mazzoni”, a “Latona with her children transforming the peasants into frogs for having dirtied the waters of the spring, figures less than one third natural size by Giulio Carpioni”, a “Mercury putting Argus to sleep, full size figure by Pietro Negri, 8 ½ high, 10 wide”, a “Hope, full size figure with three cupids by Cavalier Liberi, 8 ½, high wide […]” and the already mentioned “Thales of Miletus”; see M.F. Merling (op. cit. note 2, pp. 40 2-404), P. Benassai (op. cit. note 2, pp. 203 -204).
20. F. Susinno (op. cit. note 5, p. 204).
21 See N. Spinosa, “La natura morta a Napoli”, in La natura morta in Italia, Milan 1989, II, pp. 85 2-871, in particular. p. 854 , fig. 1015.
22 See the Socrates by Pietro Bellotti in a private collection in Brescia where we can notice the same precise treatment of the books and pages, as well as the Old Philosopher in the Study sold by Christie’s New York (L. Anelli, Pietro Bellotti 1625-1700, Brescia 199 6, figs. 254, 264).
23. M. Boschini (op. cit. , note 9, p. 634). Giovanni Nani’s collection included a portrait of Giovanni Battista Nani by Bellotti, on this subject see M.F. Merling (op. cit. note 2, p. 404) and P. Benassai (op. cit. note 2, p. 204).